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Corbin v. Steak N' Shake, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

August 21, 2019

Hannah Corbin, Plaintiff,
Steak n Shake, Inc., et al., Defendants.

          Deavers Magistrate Judge



         Plaintiff Hannah Corbin brings this suit for hostile work environment, gender discrimination and retaliation against her former employer Steak n Shake, Inc. Corbin alleges that three coworkers sexually harassed her by making repeated comments about her body and that one of the coworkers made unwanted physical contact with her. She further alleges that the harassment was sufficiently severe and intolerable as to result in her constructive discharge.

         This matter is before the court on Steak n Shake's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants in part and denies in part the motion for summary judgment.

         I. Background

         A. Facts

         Hannah Corbin was 16 years old when she began working at a Steak n Shake restaurant in Newark, Ohio in mid-July 2015. See Corbin Dep. at 21; Morlen Aff. at ¶ 1. She worked as a server, and her job duties included greeting customers, taking orders, serving food and cleaning tables. Id. at 36-37. Corbin worked about 25 hours per week. She worked primarily on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and sporadically on weekday evenings. Id. at 29-30.

         Corbin was interviewed and hired by service manager Sean McLeish. Id. at 23. Defendant Michael Simon was the store's General Manager. Simon did not interact often with Corbin because he worked normal weekday shifts. See Simon Aff. at ¶ 5.

         Corbin testified that she was subjected to sex-based comments right from the start of her employment. On the day of her interview, she was told by two male employees that McLeish liked to hire “pretty young females.” Corbin Dep. at 40. She was told this by Will McCann and Robert “Bubba” Travis, who held positions of hourly production associates.[1] Id.; Simon Aff. at ¶¶ 8, 10.

         McCann and Travis regularly made comments to Corbin during the course of her roughly eight-month period of employment at Steak n Shake. According to Corbin, “Every day I would go in and they would make a new remark about my butt or my boobs or how thick I was. . . . They would make googly eyes . . . . [and] stare at me until I got out of sight.” Corbin Dep. at 40. Corbin characterized this behavior as “never ending.” Id. Corbin testified that a third coworker, Logan Brown, who was also an hourly production associate, would sometimes join in on the comments. Id. at 113-14.

         Corbin had a boyfriend and she hoped that telling McCann, Travis and Brown of him would cause them to stop their behavior, but it did not. Id. at 40. Upon finding out that Corbin's boyfriend was an African-American, they made comments about this too. Referring to the black pants which employees had to wear, they said that they were “black from the waist down” and asked if this gave them a chance with Corbin. Id. at 40-41, 114-15. Corbin tried to “brush them off.” Id. at 46. After they made such comments two or three times, Corbin told them that she would have her boyfriend come into the store; they then stopped making those types of race-based sexual comments. Id. at 46.

         In December 2015 and early 2016, McCann made physical contact with Corbin. As Corbin described it, “Will started to smack my butt. Like, I would walk by him through the back line, to get something. And he would smack my butt and take his hand away so quick that I would just turn around and no one would be there.” Id. at 41. This happened three to five times over the course of about a month. Id. at 47. On one occasion, McCann also rubbed Corbin's neck with his hands. Id. at 41-42. McCann ceased the physical contact after Corbin stated her intention to tell her boyfriend and parents. Id. at 41.

         Though the physical contact stopped, McCann and Travis continued making remarks to Corbin. “[T]he comments, they were every day. They would say something every time I walked by.” Id. at 42. McCann and Travis also continued staring at her. “They would be looking through the window, the food window, while I'm cleaning my tables. And I would turn around and they would just be staring at me.” Id.

         In March 2016, Corbin complained of the harassment by McCann and Travis to Simon. Corbin Dep. at 64-66; Dean Aff. at ¶ 10. Corbin does not recall exactly when she made her complaint but she does remember the situation in which it arose. As she was in the back of the store picking up cardboard, Simon and McCann came in and McCann said to Simon, “Isn't that a nice view?” Corbin Dep. at 65. Simon “nodded his head” and “proceeded on like it was no big deal.” Id.

         Corbin used this occasion to tell Simon of the verbal harassment she had received from McCann and Travis. Id. at 65-66. She told him that she did not like “how Will talk[ed]” to her and that McCann and Travis had made “sexual comments” to her.[2] Id at 66. According to Corbin, Simon did not believe her and said he “had no proof” of the harassment before him. Id. at 66, 74. Corbin told Simon that she wanted “to call corporate about it” since he would not resolve the problem. Id. at 66. This prompted Simon to provide her with the telephone number for the corporate hotline. Id.

         The corporate hotline was one of the avenues identified in Steak n Shake's “Youth at Work Initiative” policy for reporting harassment or discrimination. Corbin Dep, Ex. B. The policy informed employees under 18 years old of their right to be free from harassment and discrimination at work and encouraged them and their parents to report such conduct immediately. This same policy, including the avenues for reporting, was repeated in Steak n Shake's Sexual Harassment Policy and its Associate Handbook. Id., Exs. C & D.

         Corbin called the corporate hotline on either the same day she talked to Simon or the day after. Corbin Dep. at 66-67. She told the corporate representative that she had been subjected to sexual comments and that a coworker had “smack[ed] her butt.” Id. at 67. According to Corbin, the representative stated that he would be in contact with her later, but she did not hear back from him. Id.

         According to Steak n Shake, it has no record in its database that Corbin called the corporate hotline. See Sanders Aff. at ¶ 4. Further, Simon denies that Corbin reported the alleged harassment to him. See Simon Aff. at ¶ 17.

         In mid-March 2016, Corbin notified Steak n Shake that she wanted to be taken off the work schedule. Corbin Dep. at 50-52; Simon Aff. at ¶ 11. She did this by submitting an electronic message to the store's internal messaging system stating that she was no longer to be placed on the schedule. Simon Aff. at ¶ 11. Her notice was accompanied by a request that she be placed on “pickup shift” status. Id. What Corbin meant by the request was that she would be available to cover for someone else who could not work their shift. Corbin Dep. at 51. If an employee needed someone to cover their shift, they could inform others through text message, an application on their electronic device called Hot Schedule, or the store's internal messaging system. Id. at 51-52; Simon Aff. at ¶ 11.

         Corbin testified that, at the time she submitted her pickup shift request, she did not want to work at Steak n Shake anymore. Corbin Dep. at 51. She stated: “I didn't want to be completely without a job. But I didn't want to work there anymore. So I was trying to wean myself off.” Id.

         Simon interpreted Corbin's message concerning her work schedule as a resignation. Simon Aff. at ¶ 11 (“I took this message to mean that she was giving notice of her resignation and moving to pickup shift only status for the duration of the notice period.”). He instructed the employee in charge of scheduling, Brandi Genzen, to remove Corbin from the schedule, and he entered ...

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